020 3146 5586

The Zen of One Word: Unlock Creativity with Simplicity

by | Jan 31, 2024

Ever feel like the problem you’re tackling is a big old, tangled ball of yarn, impossible to unravel? I’ve worked with and interviewed 100’s of creatives and one of the recurring themes is simplicity and the art of distilling your problem down to its essence.

It’s easier said than done, but there is a tool that I use with every creative brief I work on.

It’s the one-word technique; a deceptively simple tool from one of my favourite and best-thumbed books on creativity – Michael Michalko’s “Thinkertoys” and it’s a great starting point to help you to unravel ‘mess’ and ignite creative ideas.

Think of it as another tool in your creative strategy arsenal. Here’s how it works:

Step 1: start with a simple sentence

Grab your pen and paper. Start by distilling your problem into a single, as-concise-as-you-can sentence. This is your starting point. 

For example, instead of “our marketing campaign isn’t resonating with the target audience,” try “there’s a disconnect” or in plainer English, perhaps “the message is not hitting the mark” or “people are ignoring the campaign” or from the customer’s point of view “it’s not for me”.

Step 2: one word 

Now, review your sentence and ask yourself, “What single word captures the heart of this problem?” Is it “confusion”? “blandness”? “misalignment”? Choose the one that feels like the bullseye.

Step 3: make the thesaurus your creative buddy

Now dive into the thesaurus, exploring synonyms and near-synonyms. This opens up new perspectives and unlocks hidden connections. “Misalignment” might lead you to “dissonance,” “discrepancy,” or even “friction.”

Step 4: dig deeper

What does your chosen word truly mean to you? Write down your personal definition, weaving in your lived experience and understanding. This imbues the word with depth and emotional resonance. “Friction,” for you, might signify a rough, bumpy experience, while someone else might envision sparks flying.

Step 5: dictionary detour 

Consult the dictionary definition of your chosen word. Does it add another layer of meaning? Does it contradict your personal definition? Embrace the dissonance! This friction can spark new ideas and challenge your initial assumptions.

Step 6: the word evolves

Within the dictionary definition, lurks another possibility. Is there a sub-word, a hidden gem that better captures the essence of your problem? Repeat the process, diving deeper. “Friction” might lead you to “abrasion,” or “imbalance.”

Step 7: collective clarity 

Don’t go it alone! Share your one-word journey with your colleagues, team, or even your boss. See what words resonate with them, creating a diverse vocabulary of the problem or opportunity. This collaborative approach fosters a richer understanding of the issue and gives you options.

Step 8: sanity check 

Step back and evaluate it with your team/client/boss/colleagues. The idea is that this pause, this interrogation of the challenge, should offer room for different perspectives and to banish jargony, bland, corporate speak. 

It should also offer different jump off points for problem solving or creative ideas.

Does it ring true? 

Does it accurately reflect the problem without oversimplification? Be willing to pivot and refine, ensuring your one-word compass points towards a solution.

Studies by the University of Chicago found that focusing on a single word improved cognitive flexibility and problem-solving accuracy by 25%. It’s like zooming in on a satellite image, sharpening the blurry edges and revealing the hidden patterns.

Distillation isn’t just a solo act.

It’s a collaborative superpower. A 2020 study by MIT showed that teams that used distillation techniques to identify shared priorities before brainstorming outperformed teams that jumped straight into idea generation. Distilling fosters a sense of shared understanding, a common ground from which creative solutions can blossom.

The one-word technique is a helpful gateway to creative thinking. By focusing on the essence, finding unexpected connections, and embracing collaboration, you can find fresh and interesting creative territories.

P.S. Want to dive deeper? Check out these resources:

Ready to dive in and become a Strategy Ninja? Learn how to unravel a brief, tackle the blank page and develop a robust argument here.